Can Joe Biden Save Barack Obama?

People are underestimating the veep. They shouldn’t.

Vice President Joe Biden speaks in Florida

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images.

Today’s vice presidential debate makes us glad of one thing. The phony, irritating, made-for-Twitter era pre-fight “expectation-setting” is over. Republicans won’t even pretend that Joe Biden’s synapses still crackle. On Wednesday, after a modest amount of Internet buzz over a Ryan interview that ended poorly, the Romney campaign compared Ryan’s local TV schedule with Biden’s failure to do any national TV hits since he endorsed gay marriage back in May. The Weekly Standard gave anonymity to a “Republican source,” who gloated that “Joe Biden gets used by the Obama Campaign like Bernie from ‘Weekend at Bernie’s.’ ”

If Romney-Ryan tried to praise the veep, who would believe them? The three funniest syllables in any GOP stump speech are “Joe Biden.” The titters start at the mention of his name; they continue as some Republican quotes his latest “gaffe.” Back in the summer, American Crossroads blew some of its bottomless cash reserves on a Web video compilation of Biden missteps, thanking Obama for keeping Biden on the ticket. (The idea that Biden wouldn’t be on the ticket was a classic, baseless August political story.)

According to Pew, only 34 percent of people expect Biden to beat Paul Ryan tonight, even though they barely know who Ryan is. Only 39 percent of these voters actually like the president. I’m not even sure that the “Bernie” joke is wrong. When I last asked the Obama campaign for Biden access, I was told that the veep’s plane was small and filled—literally, man—with traveling press.

So Biden enters the ring underrated, and Ryan enters it as a mystery. That’s obviously good for Biden. Ryan has outmatched mostly hapless Democrats in the eight debates he has competed in for his thoroughly safe House seat. Biden has lost two presidential primaries—one gracefully, one with maximum pain and humiliation—and coasted through some debates for his U.S. Senate seat. After spending some time with the Biden tapes, I’m convinced he’s being undervalued. He has a skill that now evades Barack Obama. He comes off like he actually cares about politics and wants to keep his job.

And he’s gotten much better with time. The first televised Biden debates, the ones that nearly ended his career, date from 1987. He was 44. His hairline had not yet been corrected by scientists. On May 8, Sen. Gary Hart quit the race. On June 9, Biden jumped into it, filling the white-guy charisma gap in a field that included Michael Dukakis, Bruce Babbitt, Dick Gephardt, and Al Gore. (I say “white guy” because Jesse Jackson had more charisma than all of these guys put together and multiplied by the factor of Newt.)

This Biden is barely recognizable to the modern audience. His voice was higher than it is now, which made him sound meaner. His first national “gaffe” of consequence came when a possible supporter asked about his law school credentials. “I think I probably have a much higher IQ than you, I suspect,” snapped Biden, raising his hand to his head, as if he’d tattooed the number up there. The debate that killed his campaign was actually a low-key forum on farm issues, where Biden repeatedly insisted that “statistics” didn’t convey how bad things were, and that as president he’d “re-establish a sense of community and one-ness.” It was at the end of his debate that Biden accidentally failed to credit Neil Kinnock, the golden-throat British Labour Party leader, for a riff about why he’d succeeded beyond the ambitions of his ancestors. But he really did dress that up in lace. The borrowed line became something that Biden “started thinkin’ on the way over here.”

Biden quit the race and followed the pattern of senators who’d had their dreams crushed in front of national TV audiences. He focused on the work. In his subsequent debates, as he grayed and aged, Biden developed a debate technique that was half passion and half statistics, spit out as from a T-shirt cannon. In 1996, Biden drew a challenge from Raymond “Ray” Clatworthy, a Delaware businessman with no political experience. These debates give us the Biden we recognize, joshing with two fringe candidates, alternating between offense at Clatworthy’s personal attacks and offense at his ignorance.

In the first debate, the candidates took seats at a table and leaned forward to attack. Clatworthy was a factoid machine, repeating numbers and votes and ratings that made Biden sound like the greatest living threat to the Treasury. Biden kept his hand on his chin, jumping in to accuse Clatworthy of making up numbers. At one point Clatworthy claimed that Americans for Democratic Action rated Biden the most liberal senator. “On spending, Ray?” asked Biden. “The ADA gives me 95 percent on spending? You’re mixin’ your apples and oranges, Ray.”

Later, at that table, Clatworthy tried to thread the needle on his abortion stance. He opposed Roe; he would limit abortion through sound legislation. Biden interrupted him, mocking his callousness. “How would you do it?” he asked. “If you don’t mind my saying, how would you do it? If you get here, within three months you’ll have to vote on this. Will you vote yes on a Constitutional amendment to ban abortion?”

The Clatworthy debates give us a better idea of Biden’s style than the Palin debate of 2008. That match-up was sui generis. Biden’s job then: Just don’t do anything that would make a swing voter root for the put-upon Hockey Mom. But Biden’s job, in his Senate races, was to humiliate Republicans by pointing out how cruel their policies were, and how little they knew. Abortion and women’s safety issues, which he could never deploy against Palin, are the tools he knows best. When Biden meets Ryan tonight, it would be out of character if he didn’t try to mire him in a discussion of pro-life bills and “legitimate rape.” Plenty of pols use soft language when they have to discuss those issues. Biden doesn’t.

Really, whenever an issue can be mined for pathos, Biden thrives. In the second Clatworthy debate, after the Republican failed to trap the senator into a joint PAC money-pledge press conference (“See if anyone shows up and pays attention to you,” said Biden), moderators switched the discussion to entitlements. It was 1996, and the fiscal problem du jour was whether to balance the budget by 1999 or by 2002. Clatworthy suggested that a privatized Social Security system and privatized Veterans Affairs administration would be more efficient. Biden reacted like he’d just heard a Tourettes patient question the death toll of the Holocaust. “Unlike any other section of the economy, we guaranTEE the veterans,” he said, flashing his teeth on the exaggerated final syllable. “GuaranTEE a contract for their health care. Is the private market going to guaranTEE that?”

Biden was saying this to a novice, slightly clammy opponent. Paul Ryan is several leagues better than the businessman with the talking points. “He will spout figures with winsome authority,” predicts Jonathan Chait, “and Biden will come off an angry old man.”

Absolutely, that could happen. Also possible: Biden could show the pulse that hairshirted Democrats wanted Barack Obama to show last week. Obama’s a bore when he talks about legislating. Biden can brag in detail about Democratic bills like they’re his grown children heading off for college. Presented with the choice to mellow out or to emote about the threat of Republicanism, he always walks through Door No. 2.